Dan Sandoval began writing for the Recycling Today Media Group in 1990, when its news was still gathered largely by telephone and distributed strictly in ink-on-paper formats.
In the spring of 2017, Sandoval is retiring as senior editor after having taken part not only in massive changes to the way news is gathered and distributed but also after reporting on massive changes to the scrap and recycling industries.
In the following “on the record” exit interview with Recycling Today Editor Brian Taylor, Sandoval reflects back on the growth and the changes the industry has experienced, as well as on his own involvement in helping Recycling Today report on and react to those changes—and on the people he has met along the way.Recycling Today (RT): What are one or two aspects of the recycling industry that really surprised you as you began spending time reporting on the sector?
Dan Sandoval (DS): What surprised me when I first started covering the recycling industry was how much of an economic aspect there is to it. There still is, perhaps more now than ever. When people think of the recycling industry, they always think of it as an environmental issue and not an economic issue. But it is an economically huge industry, and one that definitely correlates with the general movement of the global economy. Steel scrap demand picking up? Auto sales and construction are improving. Prices for old corrugated containers (OCC) soaring? Must be strong demand for the boxes that contain all those products people are buying. Former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan kept an eye on OCC pricing as a gauge on the overall health of the U.S. economy.RT: What are some of the accomplishments or projects you have been most proud of during your time with Recycling Today?
DS: Well, when I first started, we had a weekly newsletter called Fibre Market News (which covered the paper and textile business) and the monthly magazine, Recycling Today. At that point, the magazine had a modicum of success, nothing too significant, and a small staff. Now, our media group has three print magazines, accompanying digital magazines, a score of electronic newsletters, multiple websites, directories and a host of successful conferences throughout the world. I like to think that I have had a hand in the success of some of these products, but actually it is a testament to the overall staff, which has some very sharp long-time employees. It says something when you have so many staff members who have been with the group for more than a dozen years.RT: What have been among the foremost challenges in reporting on the recycling industry?
DS: Let’s see, on the surface this industry seems so simple: It is basic supply and demand economics. When demand goes up, prices go up. But the recycling industry is made up of so many different facets, each with their own stimuli.
Metals: You have ferrous, aluminum, copper, nickel and stainless, lead, tin, some rare-earth metals, precious metals, minor metals and on and on. Then, you look at domestic market drivers (unemployment rate, auto sales, housing starts, the purchasing managers index, etc.). Now, overlay the fact that metals flow on a global basis, so now you have to be cognizant of what is happening outside the United States.
The old cliché, “What does that have to do with the price of rice in China?” couldn’t be further from the truth. For instance, right now the attempt by China’s government to address the country’s massive air pollution problem could have a significant impact on that country’s manufacturing base, including metals companies. And that will have an impact on the scrap market in Omaha. Maybe not directly, but there will be a ripple effect. And that is just one sector.
Now, try tying all these disparate issues together to come up with a coherent story on what, why and how soon; that is quite the challenge.
Another challenging part of the business is that while I have had the great fortune of interviewing, talking to and developing close working relationships with many industry people, the industry still has the mindset of keeping a low profile. Lots of the folks in the industry choose to not talk to the press. I think this is a bad idea, not just because I write and report for a living, but also because if you choose not to talk to the press, whether it is me or the competition or the daily newspaper, you are letting someone else set the agenda and the story. It is frustrating to me when I call a company to get their side of the story, and they either don’t want to talk or don’t return the call. The truth is there are a lot of great things that the industry is doing; but, by not sharing it with the public at large, whether it is through the business press or consumer press, people aren’t aware. That’s a mistake.RT: Who are some of the people you think have most shaped the metals or paper recycling sectors in the past three decades and why do you believe they have done so?
DS: People shaping the industry? I am going to pass on that one.
Instead, I’d like to talk about people who helped me starting off in the business.
Because the paper beat is where I started, I have positive opinions of some of the first guys I started talking with to get a sense of the market. The one guy I always appreciated was Johnny Gold, who at that time was with The Newark Group. When I first started, I think he was one of the first guys that I talked to, and he would give me guidance and explain a topic to me.
I also remember a one-day meeting in New York City—my first trip there. I figured I would bring $50 for the cab ride from the airport to Manhattan. Of course, the trip cost close to $50 just to get to the meeting place. I had no cash to get back to the airport. I asked one of the guys I had only talked to one time before if I could borrow a few bucks to get back to the airport—probably unethical to do, but I was young and dumb and didn’t know what else to do. He pulled out a couple hundred bucks and told me to pay him back “whenever I could.” That man’s name was Charles Rotante with D. Benedetto out of New York City. Thanks Charlie—I never forgot it.
Other guys I have always appreciated include Gary Sexton with Cascades Recycling, Frank Crowley with Ekman, Jonathan Sloan with Canusa Hershman and Joel Litman with Texas Recycling. Heck, there are a lot of other guys out there who I have had great relationships with.
“When people think of the recycling industry, they always think of it as an environmental issue and not an economic issue. But it is an economically huge industry, and one that definitely correlates with the general movement of the global economy.” – Dan Sandoval
On the metals side, I always enjoyed talking to Brian Shine with Manitoba Corp., who has always been the ultimate professional, and Jeff Mallin with Mallin Bros. Whenever we ran into each other at a conference, Jeff and I would end up having very interesting conversations about topics unrelated to the recycling industry and not about sports. I always knew I had to be on my game with Jeff.
There have been so many people who have helped me, whether it was through understanding a story or issue, clarifying a point to me, discussing market conditions or just being willing to be quoted for an article. I do have a great appreciation.RT: Can you venture into making one or two predictions about what might change in the recycling industry between now and 2030? Do you see any “megatrends” approaching?
DS: Down the road, some of the larger trends I see happening will be the continual movement toward the sustainability construct. I think manufacturers are becoming more cognizant of the need to develop products that can work their way through the system and return to their original products. Also, there is going to be greater effort into realizing that what was once a disposable product is now viewed as an asset that can have another life, whether it is through recycling, reuse or through its use as an alternative to fuel. More corporations are becoming cognizant of the need to move toward the zero-landfill approach. That means developing better relationships between manufacturers of the product and the sector that can develop new uses for the residual materials.
I also think that in the mid-term the days of China taking in all the recyclables are drawing to an end. As that country gets its collection infrastructure built, the astute recycling companies are going to be out there looking to tap into other markets. While for the foreseeable future I don’t see anyone replacing China for the sheer volume of material taken in, I think plenty of countries will increase their intake. Developing relationships with those countries definitely will be beneficial. Most likely they will be Asian countries, such as Thailand, Philippines, Malaysia, India, Vietnam, etc.
On the negative side, I don’t see much of a future for some of the traditional paper grades, such as newspaper. Oh, the New York Times will still be printing a newspaper, but this sector will continue to see a decline in demand. I see a similar trend with magazines and printing and writing paper. Fewer young people are getting their information from “hard copy” sources, which means a serious change in that whole sector.
I see more products being made with a hybrid mix of metals, both ferrous and nonferrous. As consumers seek more tech, more efficiencies and better functionality, there will be a much wider range of materials used.
And I can see nonmetals, such as polymers and carbon fiber, becoming more dominant.RT: What is something readers don’t know about you?
DS: I have had a number of short stories published in literary journals.
I accomplished the No. 1 goal on my bucket list when I drove Route 66 with my wife last year–cool trip.
I have had multiple appearances on NPR and its various satellite stations.
I devote a lot of time to tutoring, volunteer teaching and mentoring adults and teenagers.
I have seen Godfather 1 and Godfather II dozens of times. Godfather III was awful.
I have never spent more than $1,000 for a car, and I drive the crappiest car in my company’s parking lot. I drive them until they finally die, and I bring them to the scrap yard or auto recycling center.
I have more than a dozen Hawaiian shirts and more than a dozen bowling shirts.
I’m a lifelong Cleveland Indians fan. My favorite ball player is Ray Fosse, and that is why I can’t stand Pete Rose. (Old Tribe fans will know why.)